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Letter from the General Council of the Little Sisters of Jesus, Visit to Africa,
During our visit to the ten countries of Africa, we had to open ourselves to something new, different from our images and our knowledge in order to welcome and discover the continent in its great diversity of peoples, languages and cultures. Each country is marked by its history, a history transmitted from generation to generation, not so much in books, but engraved in peoples' souls. Suffering and the struggle to live and survive have been the faithful companions of these peoples and have moulded an amazing force of life, a capacity to bounce back, to express joy "through the dance and the drum". A Rwandan proverb says, "imbuto y' umugishayera ku giti cy, umuruho." (The fruit of happiness grows on the tree of pain and suffering)
These are deeply believing peoples who turn to God in thanksgiving and fill churches at every Mass, even during early morning on weekdays. Images of crowds walking remain with us as a symbol: reality of countries who are on the move and who want to live. We keep the memory of so many mothers carrying their babies on their backs while carrying heavy loads on their head, women tilling the soil with the hoe, the images of so many children playing with so little. The desire to live explodes everywhere: the contrast between the force of life and the everyday struggle to survive.
Today, the African continent is confronted, at high speed with the immense challenges of modernity. It is only about 50 years since most countries have acquired their independence. While still keeping its traditional values, society is undergoing rapid upheaval. Most of the countries remain deeply rural. The majority of people try to live or survive by working the land even though it remains so hard and ill considered. City life exerts a certain fascination but offers neither work nor living conditions for the masses. Industry hardly exists and today it is Chinese and "second hand" products that flood most of the market and hinders local production. To raise the standard of living, governments urge youth to study. We admire these efforts but at the same time the sight of a whole generation fighting for diplomas, which are absolutely indispensable for obtaining any kind of a job, makes us wonder what real future awaits all these young people?
High technology products and consumer society goods have made their way into every country, creating new needs and new modes of relating, new ways of living. We have indeed found, the quality of welcome, hospitality and sharing specific to Africa. But perhaps now more than before, in order to live these values one has to fight against individualism, and the willingness to pay at any cost in order to earn one's living.
During all these last years, armed conflicts or struggle between ethnic groups, triggered by political interests, have ruined countries and have brought about massive population movements. In some countries, efforts and peace treaties have brought a little more stability and security. But for most people, life remains precarious and threatened.
The Church is also marked by these challenges faced by society. With the exception of Ethiopia, Christianity arrived with the colonial powers and it is only in the last century that the Church has started to become African. The Church is still struggling to feel its way towards its own identity. The African Church is a young Church: it is the first generation of native priests and religious. Many give great importance to social promotion and to diplomas. It is sometimes difficult for them to be free from the expectations society or family place on them.
Among the 172 Little Sisters present in the continent, 124 are originally from the continent. Inculturation has taken place even if there is still work to do to pray in the language of the people around us. Among the first European Little Sisters, three have recently died in African lands: little sister Madeleine Therese (in Kenya), little sister Martine (in Niger), and during our visit little sister Brigitte (in Ethiopia). They had left everything in order to take root among a people that they learned to love. Even with all their limits, their only desire was:
'to follow Jesus, sharing the life of the poor and even those in misery.' Little sister MagdeleineThrough them, the charism was manifested and transmitted. Friends, "little ones" gave testimony to how God's love for them was revealed through their lives.
Our "Model" remains Jesus of Nazareth. To follow him commits us to continually remake the choice for evangelical values specific to our charism: gratuitous love, sharing, solidarity with the poor. It is not so easy to live against the trend of society and certain opinions that prevail within religious life.
The transmission of the charism is mediated by our personal and community way of life. It demands that we continually choose "in season and out of season " who we are and what we want to live by resisting the pressures of society and sometimes those of the world of religious life. We encourage each generation not to admire the ashes of the past but to pass on the fire.
In a context of a great diversity of languages, peoples and tribes, often in the midst of wars and divisions, the little sisters are especially attentive to seek to live together in welcoming their differences. UNITY means something very concrete in their journey together, sometimes involving great suffering, reconciliation and struggle against prejudice.
In the course of our visits to the different regions, we have seen the evangelical strength of the concrete concern to support and care for life that is so often wounded: the fraternities are places of compassion, listening, of unconditional welcome and of commitment to support the weakest.
In the course of this sharing, where each one recalled life experiences that were both humble and ordinary, we did a lot more than just tell each other stories. We were all filled with a sense of wonder as we entered into communion with the gift of our charism. Through all the small steps taken to build true friendships the delicate and respectful love for each being, the trust, the welcome of the other as my own flesh, is this not the Kingdom of Heaven that we proclaim?
We admired the creativity of the little sisters from each region in finding means to meet the costs, of everyday life. Agricultural goods we produce contribute to this, either when you consider the market value of the home produce we consume or else when we count the revenue from sales and sharing. Handicrafts are very diverse: candles, cards, jam, fruit juice, biscuits, soap bars, incense... The little sisters participate, in a trend in the Church that aims at self reliance on order to end the dependency on the West. We can only encourage them and rejoice over it. At the same time, the Regionals are writing to their continent.
We have encouraged them to look with other women at how to earn their living together, to associate in small cooperatives if possible
Several little sisters are involved in health centres or centres of support to persons that have undergone traumatic experiences. They respond to the painful reality of their countries making themselves close to the poor and marginalized.
Rural work is a massive phenomenon on the continent, a hard and despised reality. It is a type of work that requires strength and doesn't suffice in order to make a living. Are we able to take it on and last? How do we situate ourselves? The desire that little sisters remain present in the rural world corresponds to our charism. There we share the condition of all peasants whose fate depends on whether it's a good season or not.
We end with this extract taken from the final report of the African meeting held in Nairobi from June 12-20, 2008 of a few communities belonging to the spiritual family of Brother Charles:
Inspired by Brother Charles...